Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sarah's Key

Early on the morning of July 16, 1942, in Paris, the French police, acting on orders from the German Gestapo, rounded up over thirteen thousand Jewish men, women, and children and marched them to an indoor stadium, the Vel’ d’Hiv,’ a facility used for bicycle races, concerts, and other events. There they stayed for six days in the heat. With little food and water, the French police held them prisoners until they could be moved by train to the camps where they would die.

That's the historical context for Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, Sarah's Key.

The story opens with a character identified as “the girl” [later Sarah] telling of her and her family’s removal on that morning and her decision, along with that of her younger brother, to hide him in a locked cupboard until Sarah can return and free him. As she confidently puts the cupboard key in her front pocket, Sarah tells him: “I’ll come back for you later. I promise”

Another story that interweaves with Sarah’s is that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist married to a Frenchman and living in Paris. Set in May of 2002, Julia’s editor assigns her to research and document what details she can uncover about the incident as well as “France’s complicity in the murder and deportation of the Jews in Europe.” Julia’s research leads her not only to witnesses of the La Grande Rafle [the name given to the main roundup of all the Jews in Paris], but also to descendants of survivors, and then later to the camps where the Jews were deported and eventually died.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I hated that half way through the narrative, Sarah’s chronicle came to an abrupt stop [because Tosnay chose to make what happened to Sarah a mystery] and the story became all about Julia, her determination to unearthed Sarah’s disappearance, her husband’s family, and then, what I chose to find it to be, her soap opera life.

I loved Sarah’s perspective --- Tosnay captures the palpable fear of a ten-year old girl’s life as she bewildering begins to understand what is happening to her and her family, including the sickening, panicky guilt and remorse she has over her brother's fate in the locked cupboard. Through Sarah’s eyes, the reality, the horror, and the tragedy of that day and the nightmarish atmosphere of the days that followed come alive in all its ugly. Vicariously, the reader feels the wails, the anguish, the cries of the children through Sarah as she recounts her memories. 4, 000 children taken prisoner that day, and Sarah's tragedy could easily be one of them.

Julia’s story, or as it is, her journey in Sarah’s story, becomes, at best, predictable. Not that there is anything wrong with that ---- I just liked Sarah, the character, better. :)

Thanks to Jules for recommending this book to me.

ETA: Shelley, yes, you could read this.


  1. I'm so glad you finally read it! Not my usual pick, as you know ;), but I do agree Sarah's story was more what drove me to this book than Julia's. I had always thought France had been a safe haven for Jews during the war and to read her depiction, you knew no where was truly safe! I loved reading your thoughts on the book <3!

  2. added this one to the list. sounds pretty sad, though. you sure you know what your talking about?

  3. I really liked this book, although I remember thinking the same thing. I wanted more of Sarah :-)

  4. I was hesitant to read this book but i am glad i did. It's amazing how the history of the French involvement is completely hidden from the eye of the public. As you read, you learn why. Tatiana de Rosnay does a great job of uncovering it and telling it in a heartbreaking, yet captivating way.